EAST LANSING – The final buzzer sounded before Romulus’ last-gasp 3-point shot reached the rim Friday at the Breslin Center.
As Rockford’s Mark Pearson watched the ball complete its arc, he figured good or not, it wouldn’t take away from the incredible run his unranked Rams made this postseason.
“We’ve worked so hard this year, and to just see that shot go up … all our practices, all our summer stuff we’ve done, and all through the year, it’s all been worth it,” Pearson said. “If it would’ve gone in, we wouldn’t have been satisfied. But by the same token, it (would’ve been) a good year.
“But we’ve got one more now.”
When that final shot caromed off the rim, the Rams celebrated a 62-61 victory and their first championship game berth since winning the Class A title in 2003.
Rockford will face top-ranked Saginaw in the Final at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Eagles, ranked No. 2 at the start of the tournament, finished 22-4.
The Rams (22-5) split the O-K Red title with both Hudsonville and East Kentwood this season, and needed to make some key plays to get to Breslin – especially after trailing Okemos by 10 in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal.
Rockford gave up its most points Friday since opening night – but also scored its second-most this season.
“Maybe people were underestimating them. We were being a little bit too laid back on defense,” Romulus senior Ray Lee said.
And the Rams showed plenty of guts again when it counted in the Semifinal.
After the teams come out of halftime tied, Romulus began breaking away in the third quarter and went up 49-44 with a period to play. The Eagles’ lead stood at six with 5:50 to play. It seemed their time to secure a Finals bid had come.
Rockford went on an 11-0 run that included all four of standout junior guard Chad Carlson’s points, plus five of junior Chase Fairfield’s game-high 17. With 1:43 to play, Romulus suddenly found itself down five, 59-54.
“You hope and you wish and you pray, but making those expectations is tough,” Rockford coach Nick Allen said. “We hoped and wished, and maybe prayed a little bit too.”
Seniors Mitch Caywood and Ivy Johnson would provide a few more answers.
Johnson hit two free throws to give the Rams a 61-57 lead with 1:16 to play, but Romulus knotted the score again with 31 seconds left. Johnson, a 6-foot-6 sub, was fouled again with 7.6 seconds to play.
His first free throws went off the back of the rim. He second fell to give Rockford a 62-61 lead. But Romulus still had hope – until Caywood dashed it a bit by stealing the inbounds pass.
Rockford did miss two more free throws after that. But with only 3.4 seconds left, the Eagles couldn’t set up much more than the final 3-point try.
Johnson and Caywood both finished with 11 points, while senior guard Scott Nikodemski had 12. Junioe Elbert Matthews and senior Aveon Simmons led Romulus with 15 apiece, and Lee added 13.
The Eagles have now made at least the Semifinals in four of the last eight seasons – but Friday’s loss was the latest in a frustrating run. Romulus lost by one point in its 2009 Semifinal and by two in overtime in 2008. The Eagles made the Class A Final in 2005, but lost by three.
“It’s hard to do. I can say that, because we were ranked No. 1 in the state the last two years and didn’t make it here,” Romulus coach Nate Oats said. “So I’m happy we got here this year, but it’s not real satisfying anymore to get here. … I’m a little bit tired of getting here and not getting it done.”
PHOTO: Rockford center Ivy Johnson (44) blocks the path of Romulus senior Aveon Simmons (5) during Friday's Semifinal. (Photo courtesy of Terry McNamara Photography.)
We've got a long way to go before the stories of this season conclude with four MHSAA boys basketball champions crowned March 15 at Michigan State University's Breslin Center.
But the first week of the 2023-24 regular season gave us plenty to fill our first installment of “Breslin Bound” – our official tip-off to following more than 700 boys basketball teams through those final buzzers in East Lansing.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Flint Carman-Ainsworth 46, Flint Beecher 44 This was their first meeting since January 2022 and it provided a memorable start as the Cavaliers downed the reigning Division 3 champion.
2. Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 75, Ferndale 66 These two both have several new contributors, but big things will be expected again as well as Brother Rice regularly contends in Division 1 and Ferndale is the reigning Division 2 champion.
3. Lansing Waverly 58, Detroit Martin Luther King 57 Waverly took major strides last season doubling its win total from 2021-22 and could be on the verge of more coming off this impressive victory at the Detroit Douglass Tip-Off Classic.
4. Norway 49, Munising 48 After the Knights gave Munising a tough final regular-season test last season, the Mustangs went on to claim the Division 4 championship. Norway will attempt to build off back-to-back 15-7 seasons starting with this win.
5. Wyoming Tri-unity Christian 64, Grandville Calvin Christian 44 These two combined to finish 46-9 a season ago, when Calvin defeated Tri-unity 63-42 in the regular-season finale (although the Defenders rebounded to finish Division 4 runners-up).
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
Rochester Adams (2-0) The Highlanders provided one of the best late-breaking stories of last season, reaching the Division 1 Quarterfinals after finishing fourth of five teams in a strong Oakland Activities Association Red that also featured North Farmington and Ferndale. The momentum started rolling again with wins last week over Milford 52-48 and Macomb L’Anse Creuse North 74-59.
Utica (2-0) Last season’s co-champion in the Macomb Area Conference Blue defeated MAC White reigning champion Port Huron Northern 68-49 in their opener and then Utica Eisenhower 56-41 at the MAC Champions of Champions event at Center Line. Utica improved to 15-7 last season after finishing 7-14 in 2021-22.
Dundee (2-0) After holding its own last season in a strong Lenawee County Athletic Association and finishing 13-12 overall, Dundee is hoping to turn a fast start last week into a climb up the standings with league play starting Friday. The Vikings doubled up East Jackson 52-26 and downed Milan 67-37 to start things off.
Goodrich (1-0) A 22-5 finish last season included a shared championship in the Flint Metro League Stars and a run to the Division 2 Quarterfinals, where the Martians fell by only five to eventual champion Ferndale. The second-to-last of those five losses came to Flint Beecher, 70-55, but Goodrich avenged it Friday with a 58-55 win over the Bucs.
Hillsdale (2-0) The Hornets finished just 4-19 last season, their second sub-.500 in a row. But the turnaround may be starting. Hillsdale is halfway toward last year’s win total after defeating Union City 53-45 and Jonesville 50-40 – and after losing to Union City 52-36 and Jonesville 39-23 last season, with Jonesville going on to finish 19-6.
Royal Oak Shrine Catholic (2-0) This is another team well on its way to bettering last season’s success by Jan. 1. After going 3-19 last winter, Shrine defeated Bloomfield Hills Roeper 48-30 and Utica Ford 55-52 in overtime last week. Ford had defeated the Knights 63-50 last season, and the 55 points Shrine scored this time would have been their second-highest total of 2022-23.
Adrian Lenawee Christian (2-0) Lenawee Christian finished last season on an 11-5 run after a 2-7 start, and might be rolling that right into this season as well after opening with a 74-60 win over Blissfield and 73-58 overtime victory over Hanover-Horton. Blissfield was among teams to deal the Cougars a loss during last season’s tough early stretch. Lenawee Christian is playing in the Tri-County Conference this winter after playing previously as an independent.
Wakefield-Marenisco (2-0) The Cardinals were a solid 13-10 last season, with the final week including a third win over Bessemer as they faced off in a District Semifinal, followed by a third loss to Ironwood in the District championship game. This season’s first week saw the same schedule, but a better outcome – Wakefield-Marenisco edged Bessemer 60-57 and this time defeated Ironwood 48-30. Ironwood was first and W-M third last season in the Copper Mountain Conference Porcupine Mountain.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – River Rouge (1-0) at Ferndale (1-1) – As noted above, Ferndale was last season’s Division 2 champion, and defeated Rouge 72-60 in last winter’s meeting.
Friday – Kalamazoo Central (0-0) at Battle Creek Central (0-0) – These longtime rivals finished first and third, respectively, in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East last season.
Saturday – Detroit Cass Tech (0-0) at Holt (1-0) – The Rams host the reigning Division 1 champion Technicians in the 4:30 p.m. game of the Moneyball Classic.
Saturday – Grand Rapids South Christian (0-0) vs. Rockford (1-0) at Calvin University – This will be the 10 a.m. opener of The Invite at Calvin University, with the reigning Division 2 runner-up Sailors taking on a Rockford team coming off an 18-win season.
Saturday – Grand Rapids Catholic Central (0-0) vs. Grand Rapids Northview (1-0) at Calvin University – This will cap off The Invite tipping approximately 7:35 p.m. and pitting last season’s Ottawa-Kent Conference Gold co-champion and White outright champion, respectively.
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PHOTOS (Top) A Westland John Glenn player gets to the basket during U-D Jesuit's season-opening 83-48 win over the Rockets. (Middle) Bath defenders surround a Charyl Stockwell player during the Sentinels' 63-55 victory. (Top photo by Olivia B. Photography; middle photo by Click by Christine McCallister.)